Uncorked Tahoe is both a destination wine bar and a business model for the 21st century

Chris and Kel Barkman have deep roots in hospitality. He’s a certified sophomore who worked in wine distribution for many years, and studied at the California Culinary Academy and was a high-end event manager—and their combined talents come together with four locations in a wine bar and shop. , one of which is one of the best restaurants in the area.

I met the working couple and their lovely son, Jack, on a weekday morning at the Truckee location to discuss what makes their business so successful.

The aesthetic of the place is friendly and inviting, solemn but decidedly un-stuffed, and I immediately recognized some of my favorite imports on the shelves—a cru Beaujolais and a Corsican classic I’ve loved over the years. These bottles gave me a hint of the Sympatico palate, and I was interested to learn more.

The couple’s flagship in Olympic Valley, founded in 2007, is still going strong, along with locations in downtown Truckee, Tahoe City and Northstar Village, the latter of which is known as Petra, a spot-on Mediterranean restaurant. Its location, which, like all, has a casual vibe with simple, serious food.

Chris explains that his experience on the sales side helps him to pursue when choosing wines for the stores, which each have a slightly different seasonal lineup. He is not interested in wine reps that appear with random samples, knowing nothing about Uncorked’s model. Instead, he cultivates flavor based on his in-depth knowledge of both the wine industry and the tastes of his customers. But more importantly, he invites staff members to participate in tastings that will ultimately decide what’s on the list. This is one of the many reasons the company has such a low employee turnover rate – employees are encouraged to participate in ongoing wine education and conversations about what quality looks like.

The three main qualities Barkman is looking for in each wine are balance, uniqueness (how well a wine represents its origins), and a solid distribution for the price point. From there, staff taste and discuss wines in focused sessions where everyone from novice to expert has a voice. Let’s say it’s not the specific model that most stores have for making alcohol buying decisions, but it’s employee buy-in and pay for ownership and pride in their work.

Kale says his management model is to never micromanage employees, a culture of mutual respect and responsibility is essential. When a furious customer came in during the height of the pandemic and a manager told her not to move furniture around, the customer complained to Chris, and he took the side of his employee, letting the customer know that he had all acted in the best interest of security conditions. The employee reported that she had “never felt more supported by a boss,” and that such narrative carries a lot of weight in a consumer-driven environment where, conservatively, “the customer is always right.” Standing by employees’ side, trusting them to make the right decisions, has been critical to Uncorked Tahoe’s success during the most difficult times.

Uncorked is also unusual when it comes to what is offered by the glass on shelves and in bars. Chris says his three top importers are Kermit Lynch, Louis Dresner and Rosenthal Wine Merchant, all companies that have a long history and reputation to support. Don’t come here looking for an over-ripe cult Napa cab. You’re more likely to find a little-known low-alcohol red from Chile, a classic Champagne, or an under-the-radar Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.

I came to Petra for dinner and was absolutely delighted to find the corn salad with feta, homemade hummus, and a beautifully prepared Mahi Mahi with caponata served by Kale’s chosen glass of Austrian Riesling. Completely gone along. Chef Matthew Turner’s cooking has a beautiful simplicity about it that merges well with Barkman’s signature style.

It’s a joy when good taste and good business come together, and Uncorked Tahoe is the kind of company I want to support, now more than ever. Be sure to stop by the next time you’re in Tahoe – a glass of wine and a few bottles to take home.

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